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China's Internet Heroes
 

By Oliver August.

November 2007
Wired Magazine

The Chinese government seems to be realizing that raising incomes is a better way of securing power than spying on dissidents.

I didn't know I was a surveillance target until the day I walked into a hotel in China's Fujian province. I was pushing past half a dozen workmen changing lightbulbs in the glum but busy lobby when a uniformed man stepped in front of me. Blue jacket, creased trousers, braided epaulets, peaked cap: government security officer. Politely, he asked whether I would mind answering a few questions. He stood erect with the manicured confidence of a CEO. Next to him, a gangly plainclothes colleague gave me a so-you-thought-we-wouldn't-catch-you look.

How had they known I would be here? The only people who had my itinerary were my editors in London. A few days earlier, I had sent them an email outlining my trip, and I'd been updating them daily by phone. I could only assume that the authorities had been monitoring my email and calls. I had been chasing down leads on the whereabouts of Lai Changxing, China's most-wanted man. Lai had cheated the government out of $3.6 billion by smuggling oil, cars, and cigarettes. He was an embarrassment to the government, and Beijing wanted to hinder any reporting of his case.

The two officers in the hotel demanded to see my passport and asked what I knew about Lai. Then they withdrew to a corner of the lobby to confer. Eventually, they took me to a police car, drove me to the airport, and put me on a plane to Beijing.

It was, in short, impressive evidence of the government's ability to monitor and control electronic communication. And that experience in 1999 only hinted at the Chinese government's appetite for control. Beijing has recently added a new weapon to its arsenal of surveillance technologies, a system it believes to be a modern marvel: the Golden Shield. It took eight years and $70 million to build, and its mission is to "purify" the Internet—an apparently urgent task. "Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state," President Hu Jintao said in January.

The Golden Shield—the latest addition to what is widely referred to as the Great Firewall of China (a term coined by Wired in 1997)—was supposed to monitor, filter, and block sensitive online content. But only a year after completion, it already looks doomed to fail. True, surveillance remains widespread, and outspoken dissidents are punished harshly. But my experience as a correspondent in China for seven years suggests that the country's stranglehold on the communications of its citizens is slipping: Bloggers and other Web sources are rapidly supplanting Communist-controlled news outlets. Cyberprotests have managed to bring about an important constitutional change. And ordinary Chinese citizens can circumvent the Great Firewall and evade other forms of police observation with surprising ease. If they know how.

Like its namesake, the Great Firewall consists of hundreds of individual fortifications spread out along a porous frontier. At its core is a bank of computers and servers called the Golden Shield. Traffic generated by China's 162 million Internet users is routed through the shield to check all requested URLs against a blacklist of more than 50,000 Internet addresses. The list includes pages offering political information deemed dangerous by the government, like BBC News and Voice of America. Access to these sites is blocked (at least in theory), and when users attempt to access one of them, they are punished with an involuntary time-out. For the next 30 seconds to 30 minutes, all attempts to connect to the Internet will fail. Search engines are restricted in a similar fashion. Enter the characters for "democracy" or "Tiananmen Square massacre" into Google.cn and you will get zero results (most of the time). This is a technological breakthrough for the Chinese government. Until recently, it could not interfere with the inner workings of search engines and instead blocked entire sites, not just individual pages of a site.

The Golden Shield hardware—supplied by Cisco and other US companies—is supplemented by about 30,000 human censors. They're paid $172 a month, and in some regions they're known as "Skynet" monitors. They sit at screens in warehouse-like buildings run by the Public Security Bureau. These foot soldiers in China's information war monitor domestic news sites, erasing and editing politically sensitive stories as they go along. Some sites have given the censors special access that lets them alter content directly. Others get an email or a call from the censors when changes are required. Similar methods are applied to blogs. Sensitive entries are erased, and in the most egregious cases blogs are forced off servers.

The censors also monitor email traffic, looking for politically sensitive content like calls for protest marches and anti-government tracts. Since it would be impossible to screen millions of Internet users, they home in on watchlists of potentially suspicious emailers—known dissidents and suspicious foreigners—and notify investigators of possible violations.

Information spied online is collected in 500 Internet police bureaus across China and matched up with other surveillance data, including cell phone signal tracking information. In my case, the effectiveness of this technique was obvious. Police minders always seemed to know where I was traveling and when I was back in Beijing. On occasion, they called as soon as I had landed at the airport and switched on my phone, telling me I had yet again broken the rules by traveling without permission, for example, or conducting interviews without authorization.

Evading them, however, was surprisingly easy. I bought additional phone numbers, a tactic I picked up from Lai. I also learned dozens of tricks to avoid arousing suspicion online.

But the cat and mouse game was unrelenting. A year before my book on Lai was published, I told an official about it. Maybe I mixed up my tenses, mistakenly suggesting I had already finished. "Yes," the official said. "I enjoyed the book." I was too stunned to ask how he might have got his hands on the still-incomplete manuscript. But then, I didn't really have to: When I arrived at my office in Beijing one morning a few months earlier, I had found the cables on my computer changed around. The modem wire was rolled up in a coil, the power cable unplugged, and the printer attached to the wrong port. It appeared someone had gotten first-hand access to my hard drive. When I lifted up the computer to fix the mess, I found a piece of paper. On it was my office address, written in an unfamiliar scrawl.

For all its ambition, the gears of the giant surveillance machine keep getting pelted with sand. On one side of the Great Firewall, a small industry is sprouting, dedicated to evading blocks and monitors. Libertarian software engineers, enterprising students, banned religious groups, and regular for-profit companies compete with one another to launch new downloadable tools that outfox the censors. They exploit proxy servers, deploy encryption technology, and ferret out holes in the wall. I have spent many afternoons in the Internet cafés of Beijing's Haidian university district, learning from the students who live in this world. For a dollar an hour, they will help anyone set up secure SSH and VPN connections, use the cloaking program called UltraSurf developed by the banned Falun Gong cult, and access unregulated Chinese peer-to-peer networks. Their hacks confirm John Gilmore's adage: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

From these students I learned that censorship is not only easy to subvert—sometimes it subverts itself. Each week, for example, Beijing's propaganda department updates a list of banned stories. Available to senior journalists at government-controlled news outlets, the list includes scandals, protests, and sackings across the country. Newspapers are not allowed to report on them, but some journalists posted the lists online, telling you all you needed to know.

The system is self-defeating in other ways as well: Twelve national government bodies share responsibility for the Internet, and all of them have separate political and commercial interests. In some cases, departmental budgets are financed through revenue from online businesses—it's often in their interests to loosen restrictions. Furthermore, the Great Firewall is besieged by bureaucratic infighting and incompetence that results in exceptions and loopholes.

One day, I received an official summons from the Public Security Bureau, asking me to present myself at the national headquarters. When I turned up, I saw hundreds of bikes covered in dust, as if their riders had gone into the building and never came out.

I was met by two uniformed officers who led me to a windowless room. They came straight to the point: Had I been in touch with Wang Dan, an exiled dissident living in Boston? Yes, I said. I had exchanged emails with him—but had not yet published a story (so how did they know?). Was I aware, they continued, of the rule requiring foreign journalists to ask for official permission to interview Chinese citizens? "Yes," I said. Then the questioning took an absurdist turn. "There is a problem," I told the officers. "Wang Dan has become an American citizen." The officers were silent. "In the future," I said, "which government department should I ask for permission to email and interview him?" Confused and sheepish, they let me leave, and I found myself back by the dusty bikes. So these were the bureaucrats guarding the fearsome Great Firewall? Police departments working in the same building were not talking to each other. Otherwise they would have known that Wang Dan was in fact still carrying a Chinese passport, as I later found out.

Government attempts to suppress coverage of another persona non grata, Lai Changxing, were equally futile. Although taboo in the official state media, Lai was well-covered by dozens of Web sites. Hunted by the government, he was cheered on anonymously online. Bloggers compared him to the bandits in All Men Are Brothers, a 12th century book of tales about outlaws who outwit greedy, abusive officials. "Lai is like ancient bandit Chieh Chen," I read on a discussion board. "He only takes from the rich."

After almost two years underground, Lai was eventually found to have fled to Canada, where he sought asylum. Again, independent Web sites carried a surprising amount of news. "Lai has a million-dollar home in Vancouver," was the headline on one site. At this point, newspapers gave up their silence and began to report on the Lai case, too. The commercial pressure had become too great. New media was drawing away millions of readers, so newspaper owners successfully lobbied censors and officials to give them more leeway to defend their commercial interests.

As Chinese citizens become aware that their most potent advantage over censorship is their sheer numbers, more and more grievances are aired online—sometimes with significant consequences. The first cyber-rebellion to have a major political impact took place in 2003. Sun Zhigang, a young migrant worker in Guangzhou, died in police detention after failing to produce identity documents during a street check. Sun's friends protested his death on discussion boards, and soon other sites picked up a campaign demanding police accountability and reform of the laws affecting migrant workers. Before the unprepared system monitors could react, an avalanche was in motion. Tens of millions of Chinese became involved in a national conversation, despite the risk of punishment. For the government to stop it at that point would have been even more politically costly than to let it run its course. Hence, the mainstream media was allowed to follow suit and report on the Sun case (perhaps, in part, to try to regain control of the agenda). A few months later, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao abolished the law requiring China's 120 million migrants to have special identity papers. Singapore, with 2.4 million regular users and very deep pockets, might have a chance at quelling Internet-enabled popular revolts. But China comprises a fifth of humanity. Any attempt to impose iron-fisted control over a network this big seems certain to trigger economic paralysis.

Since the Sun case, dissent has regularly roiled the Internet in China. Last year, 13 retired senior officials, including Chairman Mao's former secretary, protested a decision to close down a liberal weekly. In a joint letter published online, they wrote that the government suffered from the "delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance." The weekly was reopened.

This year, the pace of protests has increased. In March, the government provoked an outcry online by banning eight controversial books. Their authors published petitions, widely emailed and blogged, criticizing Long Xinmin, the chief censor. Within a few weeks their books were returned to shop shelves, an unprecedented move. Still, Long defended his attempt at censorship, saying, "Advanced network technologies such as blogging and webcasting have been mounting new challenges to the government's ability to supervise the Internet." A month later, Long was fired. Hu Fayun, one of the eight temporarily banned authors, told the Times of London: "The traditional 'no-talk' style of control by the government has been broken by the Internet. Different voices can be found there."

Why can't the government successfully block coverage of Lai and other sensitive subjects? Besides the seemingly insurmountable technical challenges, one important answer is this: online business. Rigorous policing or banning of encryption technology would undermine ecommerce, which is vitally important to the government's crusade to lift the economy. If encrypted credit card details and other sensitive corporate information had to pass through spyware bottlenecks, whole sections of the economy would be harmed. When forced to choose, the government seems to trust that raising incomes is a better way of securing power than spying on dissidents.

To be sure, the situation in China is hardly a Jeffersonian paradise. Hundreds languish in prison because of harmless online actions. A recent example is Zhang Jianhong—blogging as Li Hong—who was sentenced to six years for posting political essays. Cases like his justify strong criticism of China. But they don't prove that its monitoring system is successful on a national scale. The government is increasingly relying on physical rather than electronic surveillance. Internet cafés are now required to write down the ID numbers of all users. This allows police to track them down no matter how clever their online disguises. But again, there are physical limits. Police cannot chase after millions of Internet café visitors.

Today, anyone in China can send a sensitive message if they are minimally savvy, a fact that's transforming the political discourse. True, technology did not lead to the overthrow of the Communist Party, as some had predicted. In fact, the party has harnessed the Internet for its own purposes. But this does not mean that Beijing has insulated itself against political change driven by technology. Its critics have unfettered access to mass communications, and the Internet—not the Communist Party—is the main influence on public opinion. No shield, golden or otherwise, can protect them from the public. China's leaders should know this. Their predecessors built the Great Wall of China to keep out Mongol invaders. It proved as useful as every other fixed fortification in history. The Mongols still came to Beijing and overthrew the political elite.

(c) Wired Magazine

 
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Oliver August © 2006-2013